Tama na, sobra na, palitan na

. . . is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld. Excerpts:

"Amartya Sen makes a very lucid point in his book The Idea of Justice: that justice may be considered by people to exist if a connection between the efforts made and the rewards given is traceable. If somebody, therefore, is getting a reward that is disproportionately generous to the effort exerted to get that reward, then you know that an injustice has been done. Though Sen may not be thinking of the Philippines, the application of his thought to this country is easily apparent.

Consider the fact that through the decades, the statistic that around 10% of the population owns around 80% of the nations wealth remains roughly true. What is even more disturbing, save for the huge immigration influx that was done during the Marcos years (particularly in the 1970’s) the families that make up that wealthy 10% have not changed through the years. This accounts for a profoundly stagnant social mobility, thus making it more bizarre for our voting population to actually be giving somebody, who has nothing to credit him but his parents’ names, an indecent shot at the presidency. By adding to this the fact that somewhere around 30-40% of the country’s 80 million citizens are under the poverty line, then one can see how obscene a 10% wealthy figure is. Indeed, the attitude of the elite seems to be: it’s alright to help the poor so long as they know their place … and stay there.

Joe Studwell, in his Asian Godfathers, made an analysis on the Philippines that is particularly relevant:

'The old political elite, restored by godfather progeny Corazon Aquino after Marcos’ departure in 1986, appears as entrenched as ever. The current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – herself the daughter of a former president – spends much of her time fending off congressional attempts to impeach her because of the possibly unconstitutional manner in which she ousted her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, 2001, and allegations of vote-rigging in her own election victory in 2004. x x x Faith in the political process is falling, communist insurgency is present in most provinces, and the local elite remains the most selfish and self-serving in the region. The Philippines best known living author, Francisco Sionil Jose, lamented in the Far Eastern Economic Review in December 2004: ‘We are poor because our elites have no sense of nation. They collaborate with whoever rules – the Spaniards, the Japanese, the Americans and, in recent times, Marcos. Our elites imbibed the values of the colonizer.’ The Philippines, in short, has never moved on from the colonial era and the patterns of amoral elite dominance that it created.' (Asian Godfathers, 2007, pp.180-181)

A reading of Sandra Burton’s Impossible Dream shows how those in power are so related or linked to each other that our history is seemingly like one long sequence political rigodon. If Burton’s account is accurate: it was a Laurel who acquitted Ferdinand Marcos of murder, a Roxas who liberated him from a US army brig, a Quezon who urged him to be in public life, a Macapagal who awarded him half of his war medals, and a Magsaysay who served as godfather to his wedding. Marcos had Ninoy Aquino as a fraternity brother. And before Aquino married Cory, he was actually dating, guess who? Imelda Romualdez.

Obviously, every country has an elite. Nevertheless, developed countries’ healthy economy and social conditions would indicate a more fluid social mobility rate than that being demonstrated by the Philippines. A cursory look at our history would show the same families, the same surnames, continuously lording it over Philippine affairs. History would also show, however, that they consistently failed the country. In the end, while a country indeed gets the leaders it deserves, it must also be considered that in our case the electorate has had a history of poor quality to choose from.
This, then, in sum is our nation’s problem: the monopolization of political and economic power by a narrow minded and incompetent oligarchy.

Interestingly, most of the political class (which, it must be remembered, also constitutes the wealthy end of our social spectrum) would point to corruption as the problem. No, it’s not. It’s the elite who are the problem. Commentators from apparently different ends of the globalization debate converge on this point: from Walden Bello (in his The Anti-development State) to Federico Macaranas and Scott Thompson (in their great Democracy and Discipline), to other books by different authors (The Rulemakers, Booty Capitalism, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society, Malolos: The Crisis of the Republic, and Anarchy of Families).

Let us encourage the Filipino voter to not vote for anybody coming from the old political families, not matter how good their branding or packaging may be. They’re all part of the group that created the problems of our country. They’ve had their chance. And they sucked big time. 

Tama na, sobra na, palitan na iyang mga lumang pamilya."